Kimberly Hopkin '19
If you’re looking for a social controversy to throw your weight behind, the two leggings-clad girls who were not allowed on a United flight aren’t worth your time. Why on Earth would I not stand up for these girls, you ask? After all, they were ten years old, body shamed, and held to a non-publicized dress code. United Airlines doesn’t hold men to a dress code to fly, so it’s clearly sexist. For instance, the man they were flying with was allowed on wearing shorts. They are paying customers, why would United treat them this way? Simple. Because nothing in that narrative is true. If you want to know the real story, stick around.
On Sunday, March 26, 2017, two teenaged girls were prevented from using their travel passes to board a flight from Denver to Minneapolis. The gate agent explained to them that the leggings they were wearing were not within the dress code required by United for free pass travel. The teen girls were not upset by this news. A family within earshot misunderstood the situation, thinking it applied to all passengers. Because their ten-year-old was in leggings, they became distressed. They didn’t ask the teenaged girls or the gate agent about this ‘rule.’ Instead, they retrieved a dress from her carry-on luggage and boarded the flight after throwing it over her leggings. The other two girls did not have any spare clothing in their carry-ons and stayed behind as the flight boarded.
Shannon Watts, who witnessed the event, who had never met any of the girls before, misunderstood and thought the dress code applied to all customers. Reacting, Watts sent out three tweets over her popular social activism twitter account, @ShannonRWatts:
“1) A @united gate agent isn’t letting girls in leggings get on flight from Denver to Minneapolis because spandex is not allowed?”
“2) She’s forcing them to change or put dresses on over leggings or they can’t board. Since when does @united police women’s clothing?”
“3) Gate agent for flt 215 at 7:55. Said she doesn’t make the rules, just follows them. I guess @united not letting women wear athletic wear?”
When United responded asking her if she was talking with the passenger, she responded, “@united They just boarded after being forced to change or put dresses on over the top of their clothing. Is this your policy?”
Shortly after, the tweets went viral and people began to voice their opinions. Celebrities like Chrissy Teigen, Patricia Arquette, and Moby, swiftly chimed in via Twitter, criticizing United Airlines for not letting customers wear leggings, blissfully unaware that these girls were not paying customers. Once United got the facts about the situation, they tried to explain the pass traveler situation via Twitter to no avail; the condemnation of United based on a narrative of an uninformed witness was swift. In fact, Shannon Watts reached out to The Washington Post while aboard the flight in question, bashing United for “sexualizing little girls.”
On Monday, March 27, 2017, Shannon Watts admitted that she misconstrued the situation before tweeting, thinking the girls were normal paying customers. As for the man in khaki shorts that was reportedly let on the plane, well, he was a paying customer that was not related to the girls in any way. This is another mistake that has been attributed to Watts.
United Airlines, like most commercial airline companies, offers travel passes to dependents of United employees under a strict set of conditions. In exchange for dressing and behaving as representatives of the airline, friends and families can travel for free on any flight with an empty seat. To understand how important this entitlement can be, I’ll explain through my own personal experience. My father has been a Delta pilot since 1998, and my family has traveled using these passes. When he first started, the airlines had much more strict dress codes: no denim material of any kind, no shorts, no sandals, and no children in first class. Yes, sometimes my mom and dad would split up; one would take my older brother and the other would stay behind with me until seats in the economy class opened up. It took some flexibility, but because of the pass entitlements system, my family was able to take deeply discounted family vacations opening up my world to the excitement of travel. Why do they have rules for this system? Because they have customers paying for the services you are getting for free. That’s right, my mom and dad took a free trip to Sweden last summer flying in Delta One Business Class (where they have the fully reclining beds, Bose noise-reducing headphones, and gourmet meals). The customers around them paid between $4,500 and $7,000 for their tickets.
United’s dress code is slightly more formal than Delta’s new “relaxed” dress code, but it specifically lists “form fitting Spandex/Lycra pants, tops, and dresses” as inappropriate clothing. Both sexes may wear longer shorts; neither sex may wear flip-flops or torn jeans. This is well known by the employees who use and administer the pass travel system. United has turned away a male dependent for wearing shorts and flip-flops. Other airlines go even further in forcing pass travelers to cover tattoos and take out piercings.
The teenaged girls were being held to a widely known, unambiguous employee dress code that applies equally to both sexes in exchange for completely free travel. No one even spoke to the ten-year-old about her leggings. Someone overheard the exchange, and, without asking a single question of anyone involved, decided to tweet and give press interviews on the subject alleging several wrong facts. It’s a less appealing narrative, but it has the advantage of being the truth.
Why am I taking the time to clarify this situation since it seems to have dried up in the news? Because, unfortunately, the people who have suffered because of Ms. Watt’s ignorance and bluster have done nothing wrong. United employees were reprimanded; the teenaged girls (who politely exited the gate to change and catch a later flight) no longer have pass privileges. And, even worse, girls who do suffer from overtly sexist public school dress codes for the benefit of “hormonal” teenaged boys are less likely to be taken seriously.
1 http://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/28/how-two-teens-in-leggings-became-a-pr-mess-for-united-airlines.html (United spokesperson explained that the girls were aware of the rule).
3 While waiting for a different flight to Mexico City. (http://onemileatatime.boardingarea.com/2017/03/27/united-leggings-false/)